Former Village Voice critic Robert Christgau is on hand to kvetch about the relaxed sound that emanated from Southern California in the 1960s and '70s in Morgan Neville's documentary about the West Hollywood nightclub, the Troubadour, and the scene surrounding it. In a reach for editorial balance, the late Lester Bangs' screed "James Taylor Marked for Death" gets a shout out, but that's overcome by waves of love and nostalgia in a film that is very much a valentine to the likes of Taylor, so not marked for death here that he along with Carole King are the documentary's true stars. This Sundance Film Festival world premiere has a built-in audience among boomers with a hankering for the music of their youth and fans of the laidback song stylings of the Laurel Canyon mafia, but a limited release means the majority of that crowd will have to wait for Troubadours to hit DVD.
David Crosby makes the most poignant observation as he recalls his years as a youthful lothario during an era that marked, "A time between the coming of birth control and the advent of AIDS." Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Steve Martin, who honed his standup act on the Troubadour stage, is the most clear-eyed witness to the times, remembering Glenn Frey's candid confession, "I want to be a rock 'n' roll star so bad!" and recalling his own early show business adventures, leading his audiences outside into the night and threatening to hop one of the freight trains that still trundled down Santa Monica Boulevard at the time. Others on hand to impart memories include Elton John, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne and session musician Danny Kortchmar. Not everyone from those days made it into the documentary. Among those missing are late club owner Doug Weston (although there are plenty of stories about him), Frey, Don Henley and Joni Mitchell.
But the stars of the show are Taylor and King, no doubt partially because they embarked on a Troubadour Reunion Tour in 2010. Even without that, they are naturals as focal points for the documentary, thanks to their 40-year friendship and the fact that his 1970 album "Sweet Baby James" and her 1971 album "Tapestry" made them among the biggest stars to emerge from the Troubadour scene. Neville even veers away from his main story to explicate King's early days as one of the Brill Building's songwriting geniuses and her early marriage to songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, whose role in the advent of the Beatles' label Apple Records is as known as his long struggle with drug addiction. The film captures them in performance then and now and their reminiscences are interspersed throughout. Regardless of what one thinks of their music, they are undeniably sweet together and their presence adds a welcome measure of warmth and charm.
Neville alternates his talking heads with lots of music, some of it from Taylor and King's tour, most of it archival. He wisely chooses to go with lengthy musical clips, which will satisfy the musicians' long time fans while at the same time demonstrating for the unfamiliar what all the fuss was about.
Troubadours is an amiable endeavor, if something of a puff piece. Christgau may be on hand to rail against music he found unforgivably apolitical in the midst of the Watergate era, but his comments do nothing to dispel the mood. Like the music it celebrates, the doc is the definition of all that is mellow.
Distributor: Concord Music Group
Cast: James Taylor, Carole King, David Crosby, Steve Martin, Elton John, Lou Adler, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Roger McGuinn, J.D. Souther, Bonnie Raitt and Danny Korchmar
Director: Morgan Neville
Producer: Eddie Schmidt
Running time: 101 min
Release date: February 2 NY